The Kansas State Wildcats held the visiting Florida Gators under ten points over the first 11 1⁄2 minutes and to only 17 in the first half to build a secure lead on their way to a dominant 64-50 win in the final Big 12-SEC Challenge Saturday evening.
Coming off perhaps its worst defensive effort of the year Tuesday night against Iowa State, No. 5 K-State (18-3, 12-0 home) closed off passing and driving lanes, sealed the post and ran double-teams at 6’11 Colin Castleton, the leading scorer for the Gators (12-9, 3-3 away), and forced difficult, off-balance jump-shots throughout the first half. The result: Florida shot 20.7 percent (6-29) from the field, got outrebounded 29-16 in the half, and trailed K-State 37-16 at the break.
The Wildcats, meanwhile, spread the floor offensively, forced the action off the dribble-drive, and made 14 of 32 attempts (43.8%), with 11 assists on the 14 field goals. The aggressive offensive game plan also led to a disparity at the free throw line and balanced scoring up and down the K-State roster. It also led to a triple-double possibility for senior point guard Markquis Nowell.
The Wildcats’ facilitator was everywhere, driving down the lane and dishing to David N’Guessan and Nae’Qwan Tomlin for easy lay-ins, pulling down rebounds on the weak side and in traffic, and generally applying pressure to the Gators on both ends of the floor. His final line, 13 points, 9 rebounds, 8 assists, 2 steals, and 5 turnovers, impressive as it is (turnovers aside), perhaps belies just how spectacularly he played. Florida had no answer for his ability to get in the lane and find open cutters. And when Gator defenders gave him space to respect the drive, he stood up and knocked down 2 three-pointers on only 4 attempts. As he always does when he is at his best, Nowell made the entire team better.
The stat line demonstrates just how much of a team game this was. No Wildcat scored more than 13, but all five starters had at least 9, and 9 of the 10 players who saw action—including walk-on Nate Awbrey—scored. The Cats had 10 steals, with five Cats (Nowell, Keyontae Johnson, N’Guessan, Cam Carter and Tykei Greene) each contributing 2. K-State won the ultimate rebounding battle 49-36, and after being disastrously loose with the basketball earlier in the week, finished on Saturday with only 12 turnovers.
Because it’s human nature to assume the good times will automatically continue to roll, and because Florida started paying more attention to defending the paint and forcing it inside themselves at the offensive end, the Gators reeled off a 10-0 run to start the second half and cut K-State’s lead to 37-26. A couple of traded buckets kept the margin at 11 over the next few possessions, but K-State would ultimately reassert itself and build a 59-36 advantage before substituting liberally and running out the clock.
Keyontae Johnson joined Nowell with 13 points. He had to work for them, as his former teammates bodied up and forced him into an uncharacteristically inefficient 5-16 shooting performance. Johnson did not seem to care. Even when he came up short on an attempt at an emphatic windmill dunk late in the game, he could only smile at the ribbing his K-State teammates gave him. Johnson also collected 11 rebounds to lead the team and to secure a double-double.
Nae’Qwan Tomlin was the only other Cat in double-figures, with 11. Cam Carter scored consequential early buckets, and it sure felt as if he scored more than 9. But stats don’t lie, right? He also tossed 4 assists and grabbed 5 boards, to go along with the aforementioned 2 steals.
N’Guessan gave everyone a scare when he appeared to be favoring his lower leg after a collision under the bucket early in the second half. But he came back into the game later and finished with 9 points.
Ismael Massoud scored only 5 points off the bench, but he also grabbed 6 rebounds in his 21 minutes of play, and he helped corral Castleton, keeping him two points below his season average. Castleton’s 13 led Florida, with two other Gators reaching 11.
Three in the Key
- Bounce-back opportunities are only nice if you take advantage of them. K-State demonstrated early that it had learned the lesson of Ames: Lock in defensively, and play team basketball on both ends of the floor. Though Florida made things difficult early in the second half, the Cats put it all back together, and apart from a 7-minute stretch to begin the second half, they never left any doubt about which was the better team.
- K-State built an enormous lead on points in the paint early. By the end, it had evened out a bit, but the Wildcats still enjoyed a 32-24 cushion in that category. The advantage wound up being huge, considering that Florida plays so predominantly through the post. Even though the Gators seemed to block every shot attempt in the early minutes after halftime, Coach Tang stuck to the game-plan of forcing the action inside, and it worked. The Cats only shot 4-17 from deep and 23-61 overall, but they made up for that lack of efficiency by enjoying a 21-16 advantage in free throw attempts and by making life really hard for Florida with stout man-to-man defense and double-teams in the post. Florida never led and only reached 50 by scoring 8 against a lineup of mainly backups in the last two minutes. The aggressive K-state game plan—and not just an “off” night—was the reason for Florida’s struggles.
- The ESPN2 announcers repeated several times that the game was extra meaningful to Keyontae Johnson who, as we all know, collapsed during a game while playing for Florida in December of 2020 and was in serious medical danger. Whether today’s game had deeper meaning for him than the others only he may know. ESPN Gameday concluded this morning with a nice piece about Johnson, and he is rightfully one of the feel-good stories of college basketball. That he is a leader on what has unexpectedly turned out to be one of the better teams in the country should feel special to him. However the ride ends, it has been a delight to witness Keyontae’s joy every time he or a teammate makes a play. K-State fans should appreciate him bringing his joy to Manhattan.
Down the river we go Tuesday night at 7:00, trying to back up the earlier win over the other Big 12 school in Kansas, and trying to keep a share of the lead in the conference title race. How should we feel about a No. 5 vs. No. 9 matchup only being broadcast over the internet? Because the game is slated to air on ESPN+.